LOS ANGELES — As UCLA boarded a charter flight home from Pullman last Sunday after a lost weekend in the Pacific Northwest, junior guard Bryce Alford's phone buzzed in his pocket.
It was a text from his dad urging Alford to learn from the mistakes that contributed to back-to-back disappointing losses to Washington and Washington State.
"I thought he was very lethargic in the Washington State game," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "I sent him a text when we were getting on the plane telling him, 'Hey, the one thing I know is you're a tough kid. You've got to play with energy. You've got to play with enthusiasm. You've got to have that swag to you and get that toughness back."
Alford certainly wasn't lacking for any of those qualities Thursday night during UCLA's 87-84 upset of seventh-ranked Arizona. He erupted for 25 points and sank a game-clinching 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds to go to help the Bruins avoid overtime in a game they had led by 14 points in the final five minutes.
With the score tied and the final seconds melting off the clock, Alford curled around a high ball screen and got a favorable matchup when Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski switched onto him. First Alford shook Tarczewski with a step-back dribble and buried a right-wing 3-pointer right next to Russell Westbrook's courtside seat. Then the UCLA guard strutted back down court with such swagger that the Oklahoma City star couldn't help but imitate him.
"I hit the shot, I turn around and [Westbrook] is just screaming at me," Alford said.
"That's something I've always loved throughout middle school and high school, those late-game moments. Even dating back to days on the driveway, I'd have my mom count down from five and I'd shoot at the buzzer. I'd do it until I made it. I've always loved to have the ball in my hands late in games."
Alford's game winner earned UCLA a victory that added to the Bruins' reputation as one of the nation's most inconsistent teams. They have a trio of marquee victories against the Wildcats, Kentucky and Gonzaga. They also have six losses including a season-opening overtime stunner at the hands of Monmouth and last weekend's puzzling setbacks against Washington and Washington State.
If the key to UCLA's season is achieving more consistency, then the Bruins believe the solution doesn't lie in Xs-and-Os. To a man, they cited the need to bring the same intensity and effort against the lower-profile opponents that they do against the likes of Kentucky and Arizona.
"It comes down to playing hard every time and being enthusiastic no matter what the team is and no matter where we are," senior forward Tony Parker said. "When we play with energy, it's hard to beat us. So that's one of the biggest things is playing hard and being aggressive."
The barometer for UCLA's effort and energy is often Parker and Alford, the former the team's lone senior and the latter its best player. When they're aggressive on offense and locked in on defense like they were Thursday night, the rest of the team feeds off that.
It wasn't hard for any of the Bruins to get up for Thursday's game considering the opponent and the stakes. They were facing reigning Pac-12 champion Arizona. They had Russell Westbrook in their locker room before tip-off. And they needed a win to avoid falling to 0-3 in Pac-12 play.
Behind strong play from its starting backcourt and 14 points and 12 rebounds from Parker, UCLA opened a seven-point halftime lead and extended that to double figures early in the second half. Some ill-advised shots and defensive breakdowns fueled Arizona's late-game comeback, but Alford snuffed that out with his fifth 3-pointer of the day.
"I knew I had to give my best effort of the season for this game," Alford said. "I was so disappointed the way that I played on the road trip just as an individual. I was supposed to be the leader of this team, and I had a really poor trip. ... I took it on my shoulders that I had to have a good night for my guys."
High-profile victories like this one certainly boost UCLA's resume, but what will ultimately determine what the Bruins can achieve this season is whether they can perform with more consistency. The next test comes Saturday against an Arizona State team that lacks the stature of Arizona but boasts solid victories over Texas A&M, NC State and UNLV.
"I'll use Saturday as a barometer," Steve Alford said. "Because now here we go again. We have a quick turnaround. We've got to tip it against a very good Arizona State team. So let's see where our energy is, where our enthusiasm is, where our excitement is."
If it's similar to Thursday night, UCLA should win. If it's similar to last Sunday in Pullman, the Bruins could be vulnerable once again.
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